Ndunge Kiiti and I have been friends since the seventh grade. We lived in the same dorm at The Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school for missionary children and others from the region. A brilliant student and a gifted Kenyan athlete, she was consistently kind to me.
Ndunge is now a college professor with a doctorate in international medicine from Cornell University. I met up with her in Atlanta in 2004 over a spread of Ethiopian food.
I was about to lead an experienced medical team to Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Thousands of people were dying, leaving behind millions of orphaned children.
I sought Ndunge’s advice on how to best prepare for the trip. Her response surprised me: “Why do you even ask me what you should do? Even if I tell you, you will not do it.”
I convinced her to tell me anyway. Reluctantly she said, “Save the ticket; send the money.”
Wait a minute? Did she seriously just tell me not to bring medical help to one of the worst crises the century had seen? It had never occurred to me that she would suggest I not go at all.
Ndunge was well aware that families like mine have been traveling to countries like hers for centuries. Like a teenager who gently tries to end a relationship without breaking the other person’s heart, I believe she was gently naming something my Western ears were not ready to hear: Do not go.
In the 1970s, Southern Baptists, through Bold Mission Thrust, sought to reach 125 nations for Christ by the year 2000. The Baptist Standard reported that during that time volunteerism skyrocketed by 2,430 percent.
What was the exit plan? Did we ever consider one?
Dr. Kiiti told me about remote villages in specific corners of the world that have grown accustomed to help from the outside world. Constant aid from foreigners and volunteers has, in some places, engendered a mentality where people sit and wait for help to come instead of seeking their own solutions.
Conversely, giant churches or mission-sending agencies often get stuck in a cycle of doing missions the same way, year after year. Left unchecked, this can become a dysfunctional relationship fostering cycles of dependencies instead of systems of empowerment.
When do countries become “Christian enough” to not need our field personnel or volunteer groups? Even better, when do we put the United States back on the list of places that need a refresher course on the saving grace of Jesus?
Here are a few other questions our team considered as we began rethinking the ways in which we offer mission involvement opportunities to young people:
- Is “make disciples” the only criteria for mission involvement? Can offering mercy and kindness be a valid starting and ending place? (We decided yes.)
- When we give a cup of clean water in Jesus’ name on the other side of the globe, does our hand have to be holding the cup? (We decided no.)
- How do we help the next generation rethink missions?
- What are the criteria for determining the efficacy, practicality or measurable impact of our students’ work both locally and globally? And is the work we are doing a part of an existing system with sustainable goals?
- Who is this work about?
- What is the future of long-term work in an area?
- Is volunteerism the right approach? If it is not, then what is left?
Long-term engagement still plays a critical role around the globe, though the logistics of that is a constantly moving, expensive target. Recently, a mission worker told me that after 20 years in one place she feels as though she has just gotten past the figurative front door and finally feels invited into people’s real lives. We need her there.
Volunteers can’t create relationships like that in a few days, especially in really tough places where Christians are few and far between. We need to support her financially and pray for her.
Technology brings us closer to our global neighbors and opens international ministry partnerships in ways not imagined in the 1970s. Technology empowers those who speak the local language and are highly motivated to find solutions to their particular pandemic.
Reimagining our way of offering Christ’s love in a broken world should be an evolving conversation for all of us. A good place to start is by having an honest conversation with the people on the other end of that plane ride we might never take. NFJ
—Colleen Walker Burroughs is vice president of Passport, Inc., a national student ministry based in Birmingham, Ala., and founder of Watering Malawi